Tag Archives: Journalism

Stand up, citizen journalists

CALLING CARD Citizen journalism does not open every door.

IN May, 2014, a very simple tweet went out on the afternoon before Fairfax journalists agreed to strike in protest at the company’s plan to cut 80 jobs, mainly in production (layout and sub-editing) and photography.

Since the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) hearings would continue through the strike, a citizen journalist (CJ) asked whether any CJs were available to cover the following day’s ICAC events in lieu of Fairfax. After all, the hearings were only getting more interesting with every new day.

I was mentioned in the tweet, so got swept-up in the replies, but my tweeted suggestions that CJs and the MSM work together during the strike fell on many deaf ears.

“Stand down CJs,” one tweeter advised.

“Don’t cross the picket line,” another warned.

Which posed the question – are citizen journalists comrades of mainstream media journalists, or are we not?

When the Fairfax redundancy announcement was made, it didn’t register at my workplace – a Fairfax title in Queensland – where I was a part-time sub-editor, because we had our heads down meeting our deadline.

I say “we” about citizen journalists because my paid employment as a part-time sub was nothing like my unpaid output as a citizen journalist, which took up a huge chunk of my week as a sub-editor and writer for No Fibs, my own blogs and other sites.

No Fibs’ editor-in-chief, Margo Kingston, a former Fairfax employee, also identifies as a citizen journalist, most recently in her self-funded reports from the Leard and Bentley blockades, mainly via Twitter.

No Fibs ‘pages’ are filled with articles by academics, public servants, corporate employees, authors, carers, business people, welfare recipients, estate agents and many others who identify as CJs, and a few trained journalists.

We journos amongst them are a mish-mash of survivors from the wash-up of the mainstream media, the shipwreck of which occurred long before this week’s latest round of redundancies within Fairfax.

Which tempered my response to the strike. I empathised, but the axe has been hanging over my journalist’s head for years. It’s become almost impossible to secure gainful full-time work with my subbing skills, and I work alongside plenty of highly-skilled, under-employed journalists.

That day’s strike in the south barely registered up here.

FAIRFAX STRIKE Photographer Kirk Gilmour and union representative Andy Zakeli lead editorial staff striking outside offices of the Illawarra Mercury in Wollongong, May 8, 2014.
FAIRFAX STRIKE Photographer Kirk Gilmour and union representative Andy Zakeli led editorial staff striking outside offices of the Illawarra Mercury in Wollongong, May 8, 2014.

Because many of those who were shocked by Fairfax’s job cuts placed the strike at the very centre of journalism as we know it, and, far more surreal, they were expecting readers to notice Fairfax journos wouldn’t be reporting that day.

I weighed into the Twitter debate about whether a CJ could be described as a rat for reporting from ICAC that day, citing lack of pay and lack of affiliation as reasons why it would not be the end of the world if one had.

In the process I was turned into some apologist for the ‘dark forces’ ending our careers, but it has not washed, that argument, ever since I came to terms with why I believe the media has been killed by every single user of the social media’s Publish Button. Journalism will survive, but the media as we knew it is already dead.

It’s very confronting, this moment of realisation, for all journalists – seasoned, emergent, and student. I feel most for the students about to begin a lifetime of HECS debt in return for a degree which will not sustain them with a career. They have been lied to by institutions out of touch with the reality of a dying industry. Savvy 18-year-old tweeters already have more of an audience than most media graduates.

Citizen journalists are perhaps more in touch with the point of journalism – as one tweeter pointed out, journalism is ultimately about communicating to an audience, without whom the job is a one-way street leading nowhere.

We know the role requires much more of individuals than mainstream journalism ever did – taking photographs in addition to writing; creating headlines in addition to stories; proofing our own work and not just writing it; and uploading it onto the largest distribution network the world has ever seen: the social media.

Many citizen journalists struggle with this workload, and there is very, very rarely a pay cheque at the end of weeks of research and/or travel.

Some mainstream journalists have taken to the social media via blogs to complain, and the plethora of spelling errors, layout mistakes and grammatical knots reveal an embedded reliance on production colleagues that may not find sympathy in the wider workplace. Journalists need to be match-fit and multi-skilled, not merely insightful writers.

There is also the issue of access: try blagging your way into a press conference without a mainstream media logo on your lapel, yet citizen journalists manage to get in and report.

For one of us to turn up at ICAC that day and live tweet would not be an onerous task. Twitter has provided easy access to our audience, and journalists of all stripes, including Fairfax staff, have rushed to capitalise on Twitter in a way which outstrips mainstream media circulation by an unlimited degree.

That mainstream journalists want the right to access that free distribution network through live tweeting, and get paid, opens them to accusations of having a foot in both the problem and the solution for journalists worldwide.


I defend my colleagues’ right to strike and I understand why they did so, but I will also defend any unpaid, unaffiliated citizen journalist who live tweets during a mainstream media strike, as long as they report the truth and they hashtag properly. Crorcet silplneg is oatpnoil.

And in the end, the only journo who crossed the picket line that day was a Fairfax employee.

An extract from Write, regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

The publish button killed the media

THE cancellation of the funding behind Australia’s flagship online news source The Global Mail sent shock waves through the local media, because many journalists were watching to see if the rise of the independent online media hub was a viable career lifeboat.

“What’s clear to me now is that the social media is the only media.”

The demeanour of journalist Mike Seccombe said it all, when he fronted-up for an interview on Friday’s ABC Breakfast News.

Virginia Trioli asked him whether there were other ways of funding The Global Mail. He exhaled, shrugged and replied that he is a journalist, not a money man.

I felt for him, because if 20,000 subscribers, a stable of top notch journos, and private backing are not good enough to make The Global Mail work, what the hell is?

Before things got too depressing, technical problems meant the interview had to be wrapped-up fast, and the inexpressible did not get articulated.

The inexpressible being, of course, that the media as we know it is in its death throes. It’s on the mat. The death rattle has begun. Wake up peeps, it’s happening, it’s really happening.

WHERE IT'S AT The Publish Button, we've all got one now!
WHERE IT’S AT The Publish Button, we’ve all got one now!

I could rail at the media moguls who have sold us out, but I’m calling The Publish Button the main culprit, that powerful little hyperlink which emerged on online blogging platforms a decade ago.

We flocked to it like gulls at a rubbish bin, and since digital technology was able to count the uptake, advertisers followed in an equally frenzied manner, until there were simply more pecks on The Publish Button than there were on all the print floors combined.

Twitter, Facebook and various forms of blogging now fulfill the very strong desire to be ‘published’ and ‘posted’, ‘liked’ and have our status ‘updated’ and ‘shared’.

Now, I’m not saying what we blog/post/tweet about is necessarily rubbish, but the bin is where it’s at peeps, the gulls are just not flocking to the mainstream media, which has been stripped, flogged and hung out to dry, journalistic job security with it.

The companies who made The Publish Button have become the new media moguls. They have no need to invest in ink, paper, print floors, newsagents, transport, and the tens of thousands of people who once staffed the media.

And without us even noticing, they have managed extremely well without journalists. A media which has no need to pay for content is every CEO’s dream.

Content flows freely to them, because The Publish Button is such effective bait.

Its lightning fast distribution is a stimulant like no other to wordsmiths. No barrier to participation, no editors to chase us, no pesky sub-editors to keep us nice, no delay in reaching our audience, and the ability to correct errors instantaneously… if we care about any of that, and there’s no requirement to.

If I StumbleUpon it I can Storify it, and I can say I’ve Reddit. I can Press my Words, I can show my Pinterest, I can Inst a Gram, I can meme like a Tumblr.

It’s all so liberating and wonderful… “Content is King!”, they say, to exhort us into creating great content, but it’s also free, and it’s left journalism with virtually no currency.

The social media’s advertising and subscription revenue, which is placing the corporations behind The Publish Button in stockmarket positions that have Rupert Murdoch worried, is not shared with the content creators of this new world media.

To complain any further about the mainstream media is just like a new government blaming the old: after a while, it just doesn’t hold true anymore.

So, where does journalism stand now the media is flatlining?

ARRESTING JOURNO Margo Kingston under arrest at the Leard Blockade. (Photo: Georgina Woods).
ARRESTING JOURNO Margo Kingston under arrest at the Leard Blockade. (Photo: Georgina Woods).

In February, 2014, No Fibs citizen journalist Margo Kingston showed by example what journalists can do with The Publish Button, by relocating to north-west NSW and reporting on the #leardblockade, where a group of activists held back the progress of the Maules Creek Mine.

Margo self-funded her Storify reports, put together by Tony ‘The Geek’ Yegles, which were uploaded onto No Fibs with a regularity that a mainstream news site would be envious of.

Twitter was utilised to distribute these short interviews, news items and reports to a growing audience.

What made it relevant was the depth of engagement, participation, and the provision of opportunities for the subject to contribute to the report.

This is possibly the true meaning of ‘social’ in social media, and it’s possibly what makes very tasty bits for the gulls to peck at.

If The Global Mail had attracted a few gulls to the edge of the bin they might not have reached this point. Their low-level social media engagement may well have been their Achilles heel, or was it their propensity to pay their journalists a decent salary?

WRITE REGARDLESSI’m not in a position to answer that. What’s clear to me now is that the social media is the only media.

There, I’ve said it. As a journalist, all I have to do is find a way to come to terms with it.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.


Voyage to the new news world – part two

JOURNALISTS AT SEA Grab an oar and row like hell.
JOURNALISTS AT SEA Grab an oar and row like hell.

BEING a WordPress blogger I was able to start work as a site editor on No Fibs immediately, with regular tips from site manager Tony Yegles. That got me right to the coal face of online news.

I decided to sub-edit in the same manner as I did at my day-job, meaning there was some risk citizen journalists would not understand why certain choices were made about shaping their work.

I also felt the headlines needed to differentiate facts from opinions.

So I began to operate under an ‘if they were there, they were reporting’ principle. A ‘report’ was an eyewitness account; a ‘comment’ was a bum-on-seat rumination. To publish any other way would confuse readers and writers.

Margo was also adamant the citizen journalist’s ‘voice’ should not be edited-out, and that meant lighter sub-editing rules allowing an original social media edge.

“It was far easier to imagine a mainstream media replete with lazy or biased journalists than to include ourselves in the blame.”

Kevin Rudd resigned, resulting in the Griffith by-election, and Jan Bowman started to write regularly about the line-up of candidates.

Because her subject was on the news cycle, Jan’s articles needed to take their place promptly and I needed to find ways to make No Fibs’ contributions stand out.

Jan was getting into press conferences and meeting all the candidates, and I was determined to match her commitment. We both had little time outside work, which meant filing and sub-editing at all hours.

As a team, No Fibs provided another voice in the first litmus test for the newly minted Abbott Government.

When Margo gave me a great gift by asking me to keep writing for the site as arts editor, I had never been given such a green light by an editor. She’d read a few of my arts-based pieces on my blog and knew I had a lot to say. I’d observed how her tweets about my articles increased my readership, and how the same phenomenon occurred on No Fibs.

I finally understood what an incredible shopfront Twitter was for journalism.

It’s a great feeling to be granted a small piece of online real estate to fill, but it also came with a commitment to posting articles on a regular basis.

I developed subject parameters, since art and politics didn’t seem to be such a natural blend, and I attracted fascinating interviewees, including Amanda Bishop, who impersonated Julia Gillard throughout the former Prime Minister’s term.

When I decided to compare journalism and art as career choices in one article I found something rather interesting: somehow, journalism had replaced art at the bottom of the ‘career scale’.

It was a shock to learn the industry I entered only five years prior as a means to survive as an artist was now more precarious than a career as an artist.

From that point I decided to include journalism as an art form within my #CreatingWaves column and explore what had brought it so low.

CLICK BAIT The mainstream media's fight for attention is ugly.
CLICK BAIT The mainstream media’s fight for attention is ugly.

The social media was one obvious culprit. Every time we hit the publish button (or post, or share, or like) we provide free content (and site statistics) to very large corporations in direct competition with the MSM for advertising revenue.

That was a dark moment for me – accepting that we journalists who weren’t quite buoyed-up by the MSM were partially to blame for its demise through nothing worse than the desire to communicate via the social media.

My article on this issue sparked debate from some who could not accept our blogging, tweeting and facebooking had an impact on the MSM. It was far easier to imagine a mainstream media replete with lazy or biased journalists than to include ourselves in the blame.

It dawned on me that many readers were unaware of how stretched newsrooms are – they expected top-notch news but they were not always willing to pay for it, or didn’t understand why media outlets needed to find increasingly inventive ways to remain viable.

Blaming the MSM came into very sharp focus during the national March in March (MiM) protests. I attended the Brisbane event, not intending to report, but when I saw the scale of proceedings I decided I was there, so I was reporting. Twitter took care of the rest.

The anger directed at the MSM for its lack of MiM coverage was partially assuaged by No Fibs.

A few of us had dived in and learned how to Storify – an immediate way to gather social media into one report.

With two No Fibs Citizen Journalists (Anne Carlin and Wayne Jansson) tweeting on the ground at the Canberra MiM, we were able to use Storify to remotely publish a moment no other news source managed – the presentation of the vote of no confidence that some 100,000 people had marched for, off the back of the broadest national coverage of the MiM protests reported by citizen journalists.

The site’s purpose hit home when we were offered a report on the creation of MiM by one of the organisers, Sally Farrell.

The tenor of the No Fibs pieces I was sub-editing went up a gear. Margo was attracting a very broad range of contributors, from academics to students and activists.

The first online journalism job I ever saw advertised was on Facebook, a position writing for a lifestyle website in north America. Anyone in the world could apply, so I posted it on my Facebook page as a milestone, wondering if it was an anomaly or the start of something new.

The Australian social media came under very public government analysis when a Twitter furore erupted about the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s (DIBP) demand that a Facebook comment by an asylum seeker advocate be removed.

BOOK BURNING Another issue altogether in online media.
BOOK BURNING Another issue altogether in online media.

This led to a long cycle of reporting for me, way beyond the scope of the arts, simply because I did not see anyone else on an Australian political news site connecting the dots between passionate social media users, asylum seeker advocates, and the DIBP’s censorship.

Working in collaboration with other journalists and bloggers, No Fibs led the way to a clearer picture of exactly what had occurred, and why.

I tried for many weeks to get in touch with George Georgiadis, who made the Facebook comment the DIBP didn’t like. Patience and transparency got No Fibs a scoop in our extended interview with Georgiadis, which remains my most well-read piece and was an eye-opening experience to put together.

Sub-editing No Fibs citizen journalists, including Guinevere Hall in WA reporting on the West Australian Senate ‘rerun’, was reaching critical mass by April of 2014, but it was the work of four University of Technology journalism students that gave me an idea about changing the site’s approach to online publishing.

Their work on the #leardblockade committed to principles many journalists twice their age should take note of, but as I uploaded the stories I felt we were doing them a great disservice, because they will graduate into an industry without sub-editors.

A phrase I used to say as a joke – ‘journalist, edit thyself’ – had become a reality in the MSM.

So, I took another risk and suggested the core team behind No Fibs alter the way we processed submissions. We did not have to let go of sub-editorial control, but the process of preparing citizen journalists’ material had become far too time consuming for a small, overworked voluntary team.

In order to make the leap, No Fibs needed its contributors to file stories in a similar manner to MSM journalists. It also needed a style guide, so I wrote one.

This gave Margo an opportunity to revisit her vision for the website, from headlines to layout. A strong, Twitter-oriented style emerged.

We also needed a team of sub-editors, which we got by putting out a call on Twitter.

Our regular writers’ copy improved dramatically, and the rate of submissions did not significantly diminish by requiring citizen journalists to be self-sufficient.

Worlds collided for me when Fairfax announced in early May that around 80 production staff and photographers would be made redundant, and the social media arced-up about the potential for citizen journalists to cross the picket line of the resulting Fairfax strike.

STAND UP Citizen Journalists.
STAND UP Citizen Journalists.

As both a part-time Fairfax employee and an independent citizen journalist, I was informed on both sides of the debate, and wrote an appeal for critics of citizen journalism to broaden their thinking.

I had vitriol aimed at me that day, particularly from journalists.

We are all struggling to build and maintain careers and earn livings – but the panic spilled over into attack at the very idea of citizen and mainstream journalists working in collaboration, primarily for the sake of the best news coverage for readers.

The only journalist who crossed the picket line that day was a Fairfax writer, possibly in fear of losing their job.

There was some good news for Fairfax staff – the company had increased readership in online news experiments at a regional weekly newspaper, and the process allowed the title to remain in print.

A consolidation of offices meant my workplace welcomed The Bayside Bulletin into the space left by long-redundant production staff, and Redland City got a new local paper when two weeklies amalgamated to form The Redland City Bulletin as part of Fairfax’s continued commitment to local news.

I now worked in the same environment as the other journos who’d tweeted from the #bowmanpol candidates‘ forum.

Having done my best to make myself more redundant as a sub-editor at No Fibs, I let go and went on a holiday. When I came home I saw a job advertised which was uncannily close to what I’d been doing for No Fibs.

I have rarely felt as confident applying for a position, especially one at the cutting edge of online news media. A few weeks into the job, for which I work at home most days, it’s amazing how close the basics are to the average blogging platform.

My year of growing with No Fibs as it expanded during a critical phase, with all its learning curves and voluntary hours, aided my transformation into a match-fit, self-sufficient, paid online writer.

I’d reached the new news world in the No Fibs lifeboat, only to find it is not defined territory that can be seen on a chart, it’s an energy I carry inside me across a growing number of sites and audiences.


Journalists may have reached rock bottom, but if we grow and promote our self-sufficient currency, share our skills and work together, I believe we will start to rise. After all, you don’t get paid for passage in a lifeboat, you grab an oar and row like hell.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.